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Business Observer Friday, Jan. 4, 2013 5 years ago

Pet Protection

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Dogs will no longer be second-class citizens in the backseats of cars with Joe Volpe's patented invention. Mass market vindication, and sales, are his next challenges.
by: Mark Gordon Managing Editor

Name: Car-Dek Inc.

Founder: Joe Volpe

Founded: 2012 (work on product began in 2008)

Initial investment: $150,000, mostly from an undisclosed investor based on the east coast of Florida. Will likely be at least $500,000 in total startup capital.

Sales: Not disclosed

Sales projected for 2013: $2.5 million

Fun fact: Volpe worked on an engineering team with Chrysler in the 1960s formed solely to build the fastest drag racing car in the world. “It was a fantastic job,” says Volpe. “I went all over the world building car engines.”

Joe Volpe used to wince when he put his 100-pound Labrador or his smaller shih tzu in the backseat of his Cadillac CTS Sports Wagon.

Volpe's problem was common to many dog owners. The dogs would slip and slide during sharp turns and panic stops, a dangerous proposition. It wasn't only a pet issue, either. Pizzas and other flat items on the backseat would slip off sometimes, says Volpe, and golf clubs would rattle and clank.

A onetime engineer for Chrysler, Volpe didn't just sit back in frustration. He invented a solution. “I said 'I can do this,'” says Volpe. “I can engineer and design a system that can work.”

That system is PetDek, a molded backseat shelf. The product, which was recently awarded patents in the U.S. and registration protection in Europe, looks like a smaller version of a fold-up card table. Only this one has two adjustable legs, not four poles. There are leveling blocks on the bottom, opposite the legs, which raise the rear and can eliminate the angle on a car's backseat. It can hold up to 200 pounds, Volpe says.

The result is a rectangle-shaped platform that covers the backseat and can hold anything from a cooler to Cujo. The product, says Volpe, can also be folded and stowed in a trunk when it isn't needed.

Volpe began to invent the PetDek in 2008. He started with a pair of old closet doors, and he worked in the garage of his Siesta Key home. Then, earlier this year, he formed a company, Car-Dek Inc., and partnered with Lifetime, a Clearfield, Utah-based product design firm, to manufacture and ship it to customers.

Volpe and a business partner, an investor on the east coast of Florida, have invested $150,000 into Car-Dek. Volpe projects the total capital investment will reach at least $500,000.

In addition to capital, the four-year process, from invention to market, was grueling. Quips Volpe: “People say to me all the time, 'this is so simple, how come no one else did it?' I say this was four years of simple.”

The patent process, for instance, was far from simple. Volpe, who has owned an RV parts supplier and a software firm, did some of the patent work sans attorney. Turns out that process was essential. Not only for the patent, but Volpe says the multitude of conversations he had with patent officers was good intelligence gathering on the marketplace for the product. One competing product is like a hammock, for example, but Volpe says it doesn't necessarily protect the backseat like PetDek.

“People have tried to solve this problem,” says Volpe, “but no one has managed to do it.”

Volpe's next big challenge will be to generate sales. He sells the products online, priced from $99 to $129, and he also wants to get into product catalogs, like Frontgate. He hired Sarasota-based Design Marketing Group to handle the website and assorted marketing, including logos, print ads, public relations and packaging.

The big goal with marketing, says Volpe, is to eventually get PetDek into PetSmart and/or Petco, where the $57 billion pet industry is in growth mode. Volpe says he realizes that could be a ways away, though, and his goal now and through 2013 is to create market demand while selling enough to become profitable.

He realizes, however, the plan will be an uphill climb. “When you have a one-product company,” Volpe says, “it's hard to get your foot in the door.”

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